Cover art is a tricky thing. In some ways it is the most important aspect of an album because as much as we don’t want to admit it people DO judge albums by their cover so if the album has a shitty cover then people aren’t going to get it. If people don’t appreciate the music for what it is then you need to use every possible method you can to get people checking you out. This is obviously nto an easy thing to do when your budget has already been drained by recording, PR, management and all that other good stuff. It can be very hard to find an appropriate artist for you and being able to grow from there is always going to pose a challenge. So how do we combat this? How do you avoid scumbags and create meaningful art that reflects what your band is about but also doesn’t break your bank? Well it’s not fucking easy I can tell you that much. In fact there is quite a bit within it that could very well fuck your shit up.
First off it is very important to thoroughly research your artist to make sure EVERYTHING is on the up and up. This has obviously been a bit of a scandal in the metal world in recent months but I feel like it is a well merited one. A lot of artists have been lifting art straight from other albums or from horror posters they enjoy. Fortunately these plagiarists are getting increasingly noticed and called out. If you do some thorough research it’s usually fairly easy to see if the artist you are using has been accused of plagiarism before. This is more of an ethics thing than a marketing since honestly your average fan does not care that much about who the artist is, but you still want to ensure that you can have the most spotless reputation possible. Just be aware that plagiarism has been an issue recently and most image search services are not sophisticated enough to call these out yet. This is going to be inherently tricky for at least another decade so be sure to do some digging.
Otherwise, when choosing a cover artist I recommend doing what you should do with any significant choice – look at what your friends bands and your favorite bands are doing and try to emulate them. With your album art you need to tie into your genre aesthetic so that people not only take you seriously but understand where you are coming from. If people don’t get what you’re trying to accomplish with your tunes from the get go then they are much less likely to purchase. That being said you also need to appreciate that putting yourself in a niche art-wise can limit your potential audience. If you adhere to all of a genres tropes in your art then you will be squared into that genre forever. It’s important to choose art that can somehow at once meet a genres aesthetic and simultaneously feel classic and break through a lot of the limitations that being a part of any specific genre might place on your band and future branding.
By a similar token make sure your album art fits into a general visual aesthetic that you want to cultivate. Broadly speaking there should be similar elements throughout your album covers and tour posters. They don’t need to be identical but if you maintain a similar style etc then people are going to connect with you on a deeper level. Look at a band like The black Dahlia Murder, all of their art reflects a consistent aesthetic and this has allowed them to properly grow within the scene. I think it’s important to embrace these ideas for what they are. Don’t feel creatively limited but think about it this way. If you are playing melodic death metal then you aren’t going to switch to folk music without changing the project name. Similarly, if you have art that is full of details in gorgeous oil painted glory you aren’t going to switch to a simple band photo for a cover. You can tell that the most successful bands over the years tend to maintain a few consistent ideas to enhance brand cohesiveness.
At the end of the day the best advice I can give for someone trying to choose their album art is to look at great album covers throughout the ages and trying to take lessons from those. Don’t obviously try and knock one off – that just makes you seem cringey. Rather just sit down and figure out the core elements that you feel are for you and grow from there. The music industry is a place that generally speaking rewards patience and research. If you can take the time to ensure that whatever product you end up pouring your time into winds up being cool and reflects the ideals of your heroes then the success you have is going to be much more long term than if you simply try to be self serving and silly. The classic guys had a vision behind their art and it’s part of what made them classic. Similarly, if you look at some of the biggest bands in the world today, they have whole teams helping decide how the art is going to be, try and see what lessons you can learn from your genre.
This isn’t always an easy path to take and there’s a lot of people who have a hard time making their cover art reflective of their music. Don’t be afraid to turn away cover art if it isn’t what you need, but instead realize this is a representation of you. People are going to judge and if you fuck up you potentially fuck up your album forever. Just make sure that things fall into line and make sense with regards to your goals. It’s not going to be an easy process to choose art unless the main songwriter is also an artist, and even then that’s a conscious choice you need to be careful about. If you think it through though people generally find a way to show that their art is more than just the music.